Never look back, Lawrence
In defence of
In the first in an occasional series on less-heralded mainstream horror, Jonathan Clode explores the rather maligned update of Universal’s Classic Monster, The Wolfman…
The Universal monster movies are bound to the notion of British horror, whether through the texts upon which they are based, the casts and creatives, or the blend of the Victorian and Edwardian that generates the perfect backdrop.
In more recent years, the reimagining of classic Universal properties has usually dispensed with the British setting and sought to set their own tone, with decidedly mixed results. You will likely find one of these films on many lists designed to denigrate, and that is where I come in, because it’s time someone brought this movie back into the light. And not just any old light, the moonlight, in Autumn. So, if you’re pure of heart and say your prayers by night, please allow me to unapologetically submit The Wolfman (Joe Johnston, 2010) for your reconsideration.
Now this is not strictly a British film, but everything about it from its setting to its style feels like a Universal horror filtered through a Hammer movie, with a dash of Conan Doyle. The original 1941 script was set in Wales, but this was removed during filming, though in the sequel, Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman (Roy William Neill, 1943) Lon Chaney Jr. awakes to the news that he’s “at Cardiff!” So, as a werewolf smitten Welshman I’m asserting that The Wolfman is an honorary British horror film and that’ll be that. This iteration exists as a theatrical cut and an unrated, extended version, so for the purposes of this piece we’ll be referring to the unrated version, simply because it is, in my view, the better film.
The Universal monster movies hold a significant place in my horror heart and, up until a few years back, I greeted the arrival of most horror remakes with the kind of sneer that would make Ernest Thesiger jealous. With all that in mind, I should have found this iteration of The Wolfman deeply offensive to my palate, and yet it has become an annual watch, one of my movie comfort blankets and a film that deserves to be viewed with fresher eyes than an internet top ten list will allow.
Everything about The Wolfman should capture our attention. The cast is stellar, with Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving making up the principal characters alongside a host of pitch perfect character actors. The director, Joe Johnston is a visual effects maestro and director of no small repute, and the make-up effects come from the hands of industry genius Rick Baker; you know, the chap who put An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981) and made a ghoul/teenage werewolf out of the ‘King of Pop’ in Thriller (John Landis, 1983). Oh, and the score is by Danny Elfman.
The story is essentially the same as the 1941 original, which sees Lawrence (not Larry) Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) return to his ancestral home, only to fall foul to the curse of a werewolf’s bite. The difference here is that Lawrence is beckoned home by his missing brother’s fiancé (Emily Blunt) only to find he has been ravaged to pieces by some unspeakable force. The father/son reconciliation that Lon Chaney Jr. and Claude Rains gave us in the original walks a much stonier path here, as Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) is cold, hard and matter of fact about even the most horrific of circumstances, like say the death of one his children.
What makes this film great though, is also what makes it frustrating. Any reimagining, especially something as ingrained as The Wolfman, will be damned by what it chooses to retain and where it elects to diverge. The original has a love story between Larry and Gwen, but here we find their feelings for one another develop as she grieves for her fiancé while Lawrence’s ruin unfolds. Even the curse itself is significantly altered, and I am compelled to warn you that a huge spoiler is about to follow, so please back away now if you have any desire to remain in the dark…
It is Sir John who bit one son, devoured another, and unknowingly set Lawrence into a Freudian hell-scape when, moons ago, he killed his beloved wife, and the mother of his sons. A hidden wolf trying for so long to be a man and ultimately succumbing with more than a little relish.
So, from one perspective we have an impactful cerebral throughline, a tragically unresolved love story and a stinging twist in the revelation that the curse runs in the family. Or, we have a souped-up mess that doesn’t know if it wants to be a family friendly horror with a few too many cadavers, or a psychodrama where the werewolf needs someone to fight in the end. But this all depends on your gaze.
What we’re really interested in though, is Rick Baker’s special effects. The gore, of which the unrated version has a little more, is top notch and in larger quantities than one might expect, but what of the beast itself? Baker campaigned to get this job and, proving that the universe has some sense of justice, he got it. Achievements in practical make-up effects are to this day, still held up against his work in An American Werewolf in London, and his unmatched artistry at rendering a man turned wolf is on full display in Benicio Del Toro’s creature. It is at once the most wolf like man yet the most human monster this sub-genre of horror has yet mustered, so it would be easy to assume that with Baker at the helm the effects in this film would be supreme. Well, that is, apart from the transformation scenes; you know, the bits that Rick Baker is most famous for. The bits that won him an Oscar and have never been equalled in over forty years of horror. I remember seeing this movie in the cinema and feeling the palpable excitement as the full moon rose and the grim portents of things to come were gravely imparted by Antony Hopkins. And then some ropey CGI twisted and stretched an ankle here, an eyebrow there, and it was back to the villagers on the hunt for a monster the audience was robbed of seeing born. When I watch the film back, thirteen years after its release, it is these moments that take me out of the experience by the baffling decision to turn these potentially genre defining moments over to a computer. Not simply because they have aged poorly, but because they looked inadequate in 2010 and out of place with the incredible creature design that was to follow. And what does follow is a gloriously violent, over the top woodland massacre that should put a smile on any face that dares to behold it.
The film is acutely aware of its place in the history of werewolf movies, and what it is seeking to retell, and consequently there are some wonderfully subtle doffs of the cap to lycanthropes of yore. Anthony Hopkins’ monster origin story is almost the same as the one belonging to Henry Hull in the criminally overlooked Werewolf of London (1935, Stuart Walker). A bus crushes an onlooker in central London just as it did in An American Werewolf in London. But the deepest cut goes quite literally to Max Von Sydow, whose cameo was removed from the theatrical version. At the start of the film, he foreshadows the nightmares to come when he gifts Lawrence a silver cane with an ornate but vicious looking wolf’s head for a handle. He states he acquired the cane in Gévaudan, inferring the infamous folklore tale of the Beast of Gévaudan.
How you view the performances in The Wolfman will depend on your perspective. Benicio Del Toro lacks the warmth that Lon Chaney Jr. brought to the role; instead, his Lawrence is distant, quietly troubled but every inch the victim that Chaney was, and that works perfectly for someone playing the son of a werewolf. Which brings me to Anthony Hopkins, who either makes or breaks this film, as I said, depending on your perspective. I struggle to recall whether I guessed the twist on first viewing because I’ve always been so beguiled by his insanely over the top performance., which is for me what makes this movie such a joy. The actors know that they are in a Universal monster movie, beautifully channelling the auras of Lugosi, Karloff, Rains and Chaney Jr without ever mocking or mimicking. Emily Blunt’s Gwen Conliffe is always on the edge of emotional collapse yet manages to avoid a full swoon, instead being the true crutch that keeps Lawrence from losing his mind. Then there’s Hugo Weaving’s Inspector Aberline, loosely based upon the actual chief investigator of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders. He is every bit the mistrusting copper of a bygone age, minus the bewilderment that seems to plague most Universal horror policeman. And it would be an atrocity to omit the late Anthony Sher, luminary of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who gives a rare film appearance here as the psychiatrist trying to prove to Lawrence that his lunar proclivities are all an illusion. If the other actors were channelling, then Sher is completely possessed. All these subtle yet conscious nods to the film’s lineage only serve to compliment Del Toro’s intensely withdrawn Wolfman in waiting.
When The Wolfman was released in 2010, the world had yet to make peace with the increasing reality of the horror reboot. Several missteps and sacrilegious interpretations had left a bloody taste in our collective mouths, and not in a good way. As ever, given a little time to reflect, we came to accept a Leatherface not named Sawyer, but Hewlett, and for some, even a Michael Myers fathered by Rob Zombie found his advocates. Yet, at a time when the sub-culture of would-be academic horror analysis is steeped in re-evaluations of films that only seemed to come out last week, The Wolfman is oddly astray. It is hard to say why, beyond looking at the discordant aspects of the film that, for me at least, are not absolutes. It’s easy to malign a film, especially when you stack it against an all-time classic, but there is far more joy to be had in looking for something to love, and taking what you can from a film that embodies the spirit, story and aesthetic of its forebear, in a world where half decent werewolf movies are incredibly hard to come by.
I shall give the last word to Sir John Talbot, and hope that you give him and his progeny another chance one of these cold, moonlit evenings. Just don’t take him literally.
“Never look back, Lawrence. Never look back. The past is a wilderness of horrors.”